In the border regions of northern Shaftal, the peaks of the mountains loom over hardscrabble farmholds. The farmers there build with stone and grow in stone, and they might even be made of stone themselves, they are so sturdy in the face of the long, bitter winter that comes howling down at them from the mountains.
The stone town of Kisha would have been as insignificant as all the northern towns, if not for the fact that Makapee, the first G’deon, had lived and died there. His successor, Lilter, had discovered the manuscript of the book in which were laid out the principles that were to shape Shaftal. During the next two hundred years, the library built to house the Makapee manuscript had transformed the humble town into an important place, a town of scholars and librarians who gathered there to study and care for the largest collection of books in the country. The library had in turn spawned a university, and the scholars, forced to live in the bitter northern climate, tried to make their months of shivering indoors by a smoky peat fire into an intellectual virtue.
Emil Paladin considered frostbite a small price to pay for the privilege of being a student in the university at Kisha. He was older than some of the masters, and his long-time teacher, Parel Truthken, had warned him that he might be more learned, as well. For ten years, since his first piercing, Emil had accompanied Parel on the rounds of his territory, capturing fleeing wrongdoers and occasionally executing them when it was necessary. It was Parel who had finally arranged Emil’s admission and who would be paying his fees. So now Emil had arrived for the spring term, with a letter of introduction that was about to bring him into the presence of the Makapee manuscript itself.
Despite expensive carpets, rooms crammed with books, and fires that burned year round to prevent the damp, the library was a chilly and echoing place where men and women in scholar’s robes tiptoed about. Being admitted to the Makapee manuscript, which set forth the principles that now unified Shaftal, was like being admitted into a temple. As he put on the silken gloves that he was required to wear, it occurred to Emil that Makapee himself would have found this ritual tremendously peculiar. The first G’deon had been an obscure potato farmer, who sat by a peat fire all winter long, writing of mysteries in a crabbed, nearly unreadable handwriting. The paper, Emil had been told, still smelled of peat. He doubted that the frowning librarian would let his nose come close enough to the paper for him to sniff it, but still, Emil felt almost giddy with anticipation.
A door opened, and the sound of an urgently ringing bell intruded on the silence. The librarian turned her head, frowning. “What!” she breathed at the man who hurried towards her.
The man whispered in her ear. Paling, she turned aside and hurried away. Emil was left with the gloves on his hands and the door to the Makapee vault still bolted shut. He felt a tearing, a sense of loss so profound he could not believe it had anything at all to do with the manuscript. Something momentous had happened. Dazed, he went through the halls, following the sound of the bell out into the square that fronted on the library.
As the bell continued to ring, the square became crowded with scholars carrying pens with the ink still wet on the nibs, librarians carrying books, townsfolk wearing work aprons, with babies in their arms and tools in their hands, and farmers from the countryside in heavy, muddy boots, with satchels on their shoulders. The farmers must have spotted the messenger on the road, and followed him into town to hear the news. The messenger’s dirty, ragged banner hung limp from the bell tower, and Emil could scarcely make out the single glyph imprinted on it. It was Death-and-Life, he realized finally, which was commonly depicted on glyph cards as a pyre into which a man stepped and became a skeleton, or, alternately, from which a skeleton stepped and became a man. It was the G’deon’s glyph, carried through Shaftal only once in each G’deon’s lifetime: when the previous G’deon died and the new one was vested with the power of Shaftal. It called the people to simultaneously mourn and rejoice. Soon, the messenger would announce the death of Harald G’deon, who had given the land protection and health for thirty-five years, and would name his successor.
Emil did not envy the young elemental selected to inherit that burden of power and decision. The government of Shaftal had been in discord for some years, and the coastal regions were occupied by foreigners who lacked the Paladin compunctions over the use of violence. This was a time that demanded wisdom, and the new G’deon would not have much leisure to learn it.
A townswoman with a child clinging to her leg turned to Emil and said anxiously, “Well, it’s a pity about Harald. But what I most want to hear is the name of his successor. It would relieve my heart to know that the rumors we’ve heard are wrong.”
“Rumors?” said Emil. “I’m sorry, I was isolated all winter, and have only just come into town.”
“Well, they say that even though Harald has known since autumn that he was dying, he refused to name a successor. Surely he did it at the end, though. He’d change his mind when he felt the breath of death at his heels. And now all this Sainnite nonsense will come to an end, at last, for a young G’deon won’t fear to act against them.”
The bell stopped ringing. The messenger, whose road-grimy clothing had once been white, stood up on the bell platform to speak, but he could utter only a cracked whisper that those closest to him could scarcely hear. The people pushed a big man forward to stand beside him and listen to his broken voice, then shout his words in a voice that carried across half the town.
“Harald G’deon is dead!”
The gathered people nodded somberly.
“He vested no successor!” the big man boomed.
Some listeners groaned, and others cried out in dismay, but Emil stood silent in horror. It was unimaginable that a G’deon would allow the accumulated power of ten generations of earth witches to die with him.
“The House of Lilterwess has fallen in a Sainnite attack!” the big man shouted. His words were heard in stunned silence, followed by an outcry of shock and grief that swelled to fill the square. The big man’s final words could scarcely be heard. “No one survived.”
From every quarter, the townspeople shouted frightened, frenzied questions. The messenger sank down onto the bell platform and replied in his broken whisper, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Emil had already stripped off his silk gloves, and now handed them to a nearby librarian—the same one who had been about to admit him to the vault. “What will become of us?” she cried.
“Shaftal is at war,” he said.
He pushed his way through the weeping crowd and headed for the nearest Paladin charterhouse, where he knew the members of his order would gather. He noticed that he himself was weeping, though, except for that first tearing sensation in the library, he felt nothing. It was a small thing, insignificant beyond notice, that the fall of the House of Lilterwess had severed Emil’s soul, separating the scholar from the soldier, leaving his heart on the steps of the library while his duty called him away to war.
At the edge of the crowded square, an old man and a young woman observed the aftermath of the messenger’s terrible news. Though they did not look like anyone else in the square, they were distinctly similar to each other: small-framed where the Shaftali were sturdily built, dark-skinned where the Shaftali were fair, with eyes and hair black as obsidian, where the townsfolk were generally tinted the color of earth. In dress also, they stood apart as strangers, wearing long tunics of finely woven goatswool and jerkins and leggings of deerskin, while the working people wore breeches and longshirts. Both had long hair plaited and knotted at the backs of their heads. Let loose from its bindings, the young woman’s hair would have brushed her thighs, and the man’s hair would have reached his knees. Even their faces were shaped differently from those of the townsfolk: narrow and pointed, with hollows under the cheekbones and eyes deep set in shadow.
With their pack animals tethered nearby, the two strangers stood beside a pile of beautifully woven blankets and rugs. When the messenger first arrived, they had been negotiating a large sale to a trader of woolens. The old man turned from his consideration of the weeping crowd to speak quietly to his companion, in a subtle, singing language. “So we cross the boundary into a new world.”
She said, “But I feel the world is dissolving away before us, like a crumbling ledge above a crashing cataract.”
“Every boundary crossing feels like this,” the old man said. “When we cross a boundary, it is a loss, a death, an ending. It always seems unendurable. It always seems like plunging over a cliff.” He added kindly, “Zanja na’Tarwein, what has happened here portends a future that is more yours than mine. It is not too late to change your mind and refuse the gods.”
Though she was young, her face did not seem much given to laughter. She smiled though, ironically. “How shall I do that? Shall I unlearn all I have learned, these last two years? Shall I tell Salos’a that now I have seen the world beyond the mountains I want nothing to do with it?”
“You could,” he suggested. “The mountains protect our people like a fortress. You might retreat behind those walls and never come out again.”
“No, Speaker,” she said, seriously and respectfully, “I could not.”
They stood silently for a long time, watching the crowd divide into arm-waving, wildly talking clusters. The youths sent from the farms left to bear their news to the waiting elders. Zanja imagined the people of the entire country standing about like this, bereft and bewildered. She said, “Now the Sainnites will overpower them like wolves overpower sheep.” Her people got their wool from goats, who were brave and clever and sure-footed. She had no admiration for sheep.
The Speaker said, “No, I think not. Perhaps the Shaftali people are not wolves, but neither are they sheep.”
The trader finally remembered his visitors and their pile of woolens, and came over wringing his hands. “I don’t know what to say to you. Ashawala’i woolens are a luxury, and I don’t know if I can sell luxuries to a country at war.”
The Speaker said dryly, “Good sir, this land has been occupied by Sainnites for fifteen years, yet you never had any difficulty selling your wares before.”
“But now the House of Lilterwess has fallen.” The man could not continue. “Come back tomorrow,” he finally said in a choked voice. “I need to consider my future.”
“I am considering whether the Ashawala’i people would be better served if we sold their woolens to a more decisive trader. One who will not make us spend an entire afternoon unpacking and repacking with nothing to show for it.” He gestured, and Zanja, who understood the value of drama, began painstakingly and with evident weariness to roll up the large, beautiful rug over which they had been dickering. The trader thought better of his caution, and money changed hands.
As they led their string of sturdy horses away, the old man commented, “We will travel more lightly now.”
The Speaker had said he would bring her to the House of Lilterwess, to introduce her to its most important residents: Mabin, the council head, the other eleven councilors representing the Orders of Lilterwess and each of the regions of Shaftal, and Harald G’deon himself. Now, the House of Lilterwess was rubble, the twelve councilors were dead, and so was Harald G’deon. Now, Zanja asked, “But where will we travel to?” The Speaker did not answer.
They walked down one of the town’s main streets until they reached a place where an inn stood on one side of the road, and on the other side stood a Lilterwess charterhouse. The yard was busy with horses being saddled and armament and supplies being distributed to a company of Paladins. Most of them seemed very young, not yet pierced with the first gold earring that would mark the day they took their vows to spend their life in service to Shaftal. Their senior officer, a woman whose two earrings glittered in the bright spring sun, came over to the fence. “That’s a fine string of animals you’ve got there. The Paladins have need of them.”
“I am the Speaker for the Ashawala’i before the Council of Lilterwess, and these are the only horses and donkeys owned by my people. Without them, the trade between my people and yours would come to an end.”
“That seems a small matter when the world is coming to an end.”
“It is not a small matter.” The Speaker leaned his elbows unconcernedly on the fence. “And you will not take my people’s stock, for we are protected under the Law.”
“What do we know anymore?” the commander muttered. “Isn’t it against the Law for children to ride to war? Isn’t it against the Law for the House of Lilterwess to be turned to rubble?” She turned rather agitatedly to shout something at someone.
“You may borrow our donkeys,” said the Speaker, “If we accompany them.”
“We ride out on Paladin’s business.”
“It is the Speaker’s duty to advise and protect our people. For that, we must know all we can about events in Shaftal. And we are katrim, warriors like yourself, with vows to fulfill. We will observe, and not interfere, and perhaps we might even be of some help.”
The commander looked at them then. She saw two schooled faces and disciplined stances. The Speaker’s hands had many small scars, of a kind a blade fighter might get in practice bouts. His young companion’s hands were scarred also, though not so heavily. Both of them had a rather unnerving quality to their gazes, an intentness and seriousness that seemed almost unnaturally alert and intelligent. Perhaps these two had elemental talents. In any case, they almost certainly would be valuable companions.
The commander said, for she was desperate for beasts to carry the gear of war, “We ride to a gathering of Paladins, and after that we ride against the Sainnites. Come with us if you like, but I can’t promise your safety, or the safety of your animals.”
Seeming amused, the Speaker accepted her terms.
Zanja na’Tarwein closely watched these negotiations. Like her, the Speaker once had accompanied his predecessor when he was a young katrim. Like her, he belonged to a fire clan, and had been born with an elemental talent for languages and insight. And, like her, when he went on his vision journey he had dreamed of the god Salos’a. Now, by watching him she continued to learn what it meant to be chosen by the one who crosses between worlds, who sees in all directions. Though the hawk, the raven, and owl were all associated with death, Salos’a was not a killer like the hawk, or a trickster like the raven. The owl conducted souls to the Land of the Sun, and was a restless wanderer who acknowledged no boundaries.
Zanja had already learned that she who crosses between worlds is a stranger everywhere, even in the land of her birth. Having lived for six seasons with a Shaftali farm family, she had developed two minds and two ways of seeing, to go with her two languages. After that, her own family found her peculiar, and said that she stumbled between contradictory cultures and languages like a drunken fool. The Speaker had explained, “That is what it means to be a Speaker. Did you think it would be easy or graceful?” He had added, no more reassuringly, “What you see and know depends on which eyes you see with.”
Today, she had come to understand more clearly why a crosser of boundaries must learn to see through the eyes of strangers. Twice today, the Speaker had settled a difference in his favor by constructing an argument from the materials of his opponent’s self-interest and values. As they began the journey southward in the company of Paladins, she considered in silence the Speaker’s methods, and what he had needed to know about the person he spoke to in order to properly advocate for his people’s interests. Now, when he spoke to her about the towns they passed, and described the peculiar ways and customs of the people there, she listened attentively, thinking all the while about the potential usefulness of the information.
The Paladins with whom they journeyed seemed a random collection: some were well-equipped and travel-hardened, others had the pale skin and soft hands of scholars and their riding gear was creased from having been folded away in trunks. More than half of them seemed to have only recently left their family farmholds. Except for the fact that they all traveled armed, and they shared a propensity for lengthy, arcane discussions of philosophy, it might have been difficult to tell that they all were members of the same order.
One of the Paladins had been riding somewhat separate from the others. A man neither young nor old, he did not eat or drink or join in conversations, and walked away alone when they stopped to rest the horses. “What about him interests you?” the Speaker asked Zanja, when he noticed her watching the man.
“He is so solitary,” she said.
“Is that all? You must listen more carefully to your intuition, or you will not survive for long.”
She considered the lone man, who now stood a good distance away, gazing at something beyond the far horizon. “He is not merely sad,” she said. “He is complex. He knows so much that it weighs him down. And yet I think he could be merry. The same knowledge that he finds so heavy might also give him joy.”
The Speaker grunted approvingly. “You’re guessing, of course. But you’re learning to let your guesswork reveal the truth. Now tell me what kind of man you have described.”
Zanja considered some more, and abruptly felt quite stupid. “Of course, he is a fire blood, like us.”
“Next time,” the Speaker said, “It will not take so long for you to realize it.”
They had neared their journey’s end when the solitary man, with apparent effort, began making himself more convivial. Eventually, he dropped back and walked his horse beside the Speaker’s and soon had convinced Zanja’s teacher to give a lengthy, detailed exposition of the differences between the Ashawala’i and the Shaftali people.
The solitary man’s name was Emil. He told them that after fifteen years as a Paladin, he recently had been pierced with the earring of Regard. He self-consciously fingered the two gold earrings in his right earlobe. “I suppose they’ll make me a commander now,” he said, without enthusiasm. “And what will become of you, now that we have no G’deon or Lilterwess Council for you to speak to? How will you advocate for your people?”
The Speaker said, “In just a few years, these problems will be Zanja’s, so perhaps she should answer your question.”
Zanja was unprepared, but she could not defer to her elders when the Speaker made it so clear she must think for herself. “As Shaftal changes, my duties must change as well,” she said. “But how could I say how Shaftal is going to change? Perhaps Shaftal will form a new government, to which I might be an ambassador. Or perhaps the Sainnites will.” Emil looked rather startled by this grim possibility, but refrained from objecting. “Perhaps Shaftal will become a land of violence and confusion,” she continued, “And I will keep that turmoil from affecting my people.”
The Speaker grunted with approval, which encouraged her to add, “Perhaps my duties will become impossible to fulfill.”
“Perhaps they will,” the Speaker said.
But Emil, who seemed much impressed by her answer, said, “Impossible? For a woman of less talent, perhaps.”
The Ashawala’i did not compliment each other so directly. Zanja glanced confusedly at the Speaker, who said on her behalf, “You are too kind.”
“We have arrived,” said Emil, standing up in his stirrups to see better. For some time they had been traveling among wagons laden with food being transported from the farmholds of the region. Now, the woods had opened up into a vast clearing filled with Paladin encampments, wagons, animals, equipment, and food tents. A harried woman directed the wagons in one direction and the Paladins in another. At the top of the hill before them stood a complex of buildings, a Paladin charterhouse. “The generals will be there,” said Emil, “And that’s where I must go, to learn my future.”
He took each of their hands in turn, as he bid them farewell. “Perhaps we’ll meet again,” he said, and rode up the hill.
Along with the hundreds of fretful Paladins, seething with rumors and tales of fresh disaster, the Speaker and his student camped upon the hillside. Before nightfall, a wagonload of travelers, accompanied by a handful of Paladin outriders, made its way up the dusty track from the highway. Word swept through the gathered Paladins like the turning of a tide: the new arrivals were refugees from the House of Lilterwess, and Councilor Mabin traveled among them, unharmed. “I believe this rumor,” said the Speaker thoughtfully. “The House of Lilterwess was like a city within a building, with hundreds of residents and plenty of defenders. I found it difficult to believe that no one at all escaped the attack. And Councilor Mabin has always struck me as someone who would survive, whenever survival is possible.”
Though the gathered Paladins crowded expectantly around the charterhouse, the hour grew late without any fresh news, and finally the companies began making ready for bed. Zanja and the Speaker also slept, but he awoke her before dawn, and they quietly made their way among sleeping Paladins and smoldering campfires. The blacksmith slept beside his anvil, the horses dozed in their field, the guard at the hostel door seemed asleep on his feet and blinked at them blearily when the Speaker addressed him. “Tell Councilor Mabin that the Speaker of the Ashawala’i wishes to discuss the future with her.”
'You would disturb her rest?” slurred the sleepy guard.
“I know she rises early, before the sun, if she sleeps at all.”
The guard sent for a Paladin officer, who inquired about the Speaker’s business and informed him that Mabin was not to be disturbed. Eventually, though, the Speaker’s courteous persistence was rewarded and they were brought into the silent, plain building, and shown to a disarranged room where a brisk fire burned and a woman sat busily writing at a desk scattered with candle stubs. “Speaker,” she greeted him, without setting down her pen.
“Councilor. My apprentice, Zanja na’Tarwein.”
Zanja, remembering that the Shaftali do not kneel to their elders, bowed instead.
“I think that’s a fresh pot of tea,” Mabin said distractedly.
Zanja served the tea in the Shaftali style, and the Councilor took no notice of her, even when Zanja handed her the cup and offered her the plate of bread. The Speaker politely expressed his delight at finding Mabin unharmed, and his sadness and concern at hearing of the G’deon’s passing. Apparently finished writing, Mabin rose from the desk and said impatiently, “Harald G’deon was a fool, who brought this disaster upon his own people with his obstinacy and idiocy. Now I alone am left to rebuild this ruin. Do you think I even want to hear his name spoken again? I only wish he had died sooner.”
She paced angrily to the fireplace, drained her teacup, and held it out for Zanja to refill. “Speaker, I will instruct my people to treat you as a Paladin commander, so that you may be as informed as anyone is about Harald’s death and the Fall, and our plans for the future. Now, as I am the only governor left alive, I am being taken into hiding until we can rebuild our strength and organize the defense of Shaftal.”
“I am certain you intend no insult,” the Speaker said. “But I am as important to my people’s survival as you are to yours. Surely you can spare a little time to advise me.”
There was a silence. Mabin took a piece of bread from the plate Zanja offered her, and this time seemed, momentarily, to see her. “Are all the Speakers fire bloods?”
Though it was surprising to be assessed so accurately with a mere glance, Zanja replied, “Yes, Councilor. A fire blood’s insight is useful when wandering a strange land.”
Mabin looked away, seeming to dismiss, not just her but all fire talent. She said to the Speaker, “I suggest you tell your people to guard their passes. And you should make certain the Ashawala’i remain beneath the notice of the Sainnites. They kill those who threaten them, exploit those who can help them, and ignore everyone else. Make certain that your people are ignored.”
The door opened, and a young woman, somewhat older than Zanja, entered. She wore black, bore arms, and her hair was cut short like a Paladin’s. Her gaze paused briefly on Zanja, leaving her feeling like a pot that has been scoured. “Madam Councilor, we are ready to leave.”
“Will you pack up those papers for me?” Mabin went out to speak to someone in the hall, and returned to tell the Speaker the name of the commander she had designated to deal with his concerns. She said to the young woman in black, “They are gathering the Paladins so I can address them before I leave. You travel ahead in the wagon, and I’ll catch up with you on horseback.”
“Yes, Madam Councilor.”
The Speaker scarcely had time to thank Mabin. The councilor was swept out into a crush of commanders who had arrived to escort her to address what remained of her army. The door shut behind her, and now the room lay silent. The Speaker sighed as if with relief, and Zanja hurried over to pour him a fresh cup of tea as he sat down in an armchair by the fireplace. He sipped from his cup, gazing into the flames as his damp boots began to steam. Papers rustled as the young woman in black ordered them meticulously into a pile and then wrapped them and tied them in a leather cover. Zanja stood by the tea table and watched her covertly.
Zanja could not easily categorize this discomforting young woman. She seemed hard and tired, which might be expected in one who had recently survived and escaped a devastating attack. Though she looked like a Paladin, Zanja did not think she was one. She was old enough to have taken her vows, but her earlobe was unadorned. Plus, she had an unsettling quality that made Zanja suspect an elemental talent, though she did not recognize which element.
The young woman looked up and caught Zanja’s eye. Her gaze was almost unendurable. Trying to back away, Zanja stumbled into the tea table. The young woman turned aside without a word, picked up the packet of papers, and left the room.
The Speaker said, without removing his gaze from the fire, “We have none like her among the Ashawala’i.”
“She is an air blood?” Zanja guessed, for the Ashawala’i had only earth and fire clans, and water bloods were rare everywhere.
“She is an air elemental, and a Truthken. Now you know why the Truthkens are so feared.”
Zanja still felt the effects of that young woman’s regard, even though she was no longer in the room. “Yes, I felt as though her look invaded me.”
“In time she’ll learn more subtlety, I assume. Do you want to hear the Councilor’s speech? I myself have no interest in it.”
“I suppose she’ll be inspiring,” Zanja said.
The Speaker glanced up at her, amused. “I have never learned to love Mabin either, though she has many admirers. Have a cup of tea, at least. You may never again taste green tea as fine as this, and if we don’t drink it, it will go to waste.”
She poured herself a cup, and went over to the room’s one small window to look out at the dawning day. The window viewed the back of the charterhouse, an unkempt garden of herbs and flowers that were just starting to bloom, and the track that led to the stables. As she watched, a wagon was brought out and loaded with baggage and people. The last to arrive was the young Truthken, still carrying the packet of papers, but now escorting another person. Zanja pressed her face to the windowpane, intrigued by the strange appearance of the Truthken’s companion. She was very tall—taller than a grown man—but thin and gangly as an adolescent in a growth spurt, with big hands and feet, wearing clothing she seemed to have outgrown. Her hair was a tangled bird’s nest. The Truthken walked her to the wagon as if she were a prisoner or a puppet. On the tall woman’s face was an expression of blank, stunned despair.
Zanja watched the wagon roll away. She did not know what she had seen, but she knew that it was terrible. She remained at the window long after the wagon had passed out of sight.
FIRE LOGIC, copyright © 2002, Laurie J. Marks